ScotWars - Scottish Military History and Re-enactment

Battle of Dunbar, 1650

It was a time when rational men thought nothing of splitting religious hairs with cannonballs. It was the era of the English Civil Wars, 1642 to 1651 -- an historical misnomer, since most of the carnage in those wars was in fact suffered by Ireland and Scotland rather than England. Almost every student in the English-speaking world has learned the details of the Battle of Naseby, and Oliver Cromwell’s subsequent execution of King Charles I. But few of us were taught anything about the Battle of Dunbar, September 3, 1650, where Scotland squandered an incredible opportunity to defeat Cromwell and change the course of British history. It was Scotland’s best and last realistic chance to chart its own political and religious destiny. That chance was wasted by a committee of Presbyterian ministers, blinkered by religious fanaticism. And the fiasco ended in an English-controlled death march of 5,000 Scottish prisoners of war, one of the most unsavory pages in British history.

The Dunbar Golf Club is located where the Firth of Forth runs into the North Sea below the Lammermuir Hills. It is one of Scotland’s best-kept golfing secrets, a beautiful 6,426-yard course of exasperating fairways, maddening traps and infuriating hazards. The greens are often coated white with ocean spray when golfers arrive at the crack of dawn to begin an always blustery and frequently rain-soaked round of 18 holes. The course occupies a slim stretch of relatively flat estuary terrain between the Firth of Forth and Doon Hill, the easternmost summit in the Lammermuirs. Scots have been golfing there since at least 1616, when two duffers from the neighbouring parish of Tyninghame were censured by the Church of Scotland for "playing gouff on the Lord’s Day." In 1640, a Presbyterian minister was disgraced when he was caught committing the unpardonable sin of "playing at gouff."

Ten years later, on September 1, 1650, Lord-General Oliver Cromwell camped on the soggy course with 11,000 exhausted and sick New Model Army soldiers, beating a hasty retreat out of Scotland for England. He must have wondered if he was about to be disgraced by his old comrade, Scottish General David Leslie, and defrocked as Lord-General by Parliament for merely playing at a war rather than winning it. Cromwell had hightailed it to Dunbar after failing in an attempt to seize Edinburgh, defended by Leslie and 23,000 Scottish soldiers now pursuing the English army down the east coast towards the border. Just five years earlier, Leslie had won the day for a wounded Cromwell, leading a cavalry charge that defeated the Royalist Cavaliers at the critical Battle of Marston Moore, west of York. But on this day, the Scots had switched sides again, fighting now on behalf of the Royalists of Charles II, who had succeeded his father executed by Cromwell and the Roundheads on January 30, 1649. Leslie’s Army of the Covenant was poised to elevate the House of Stuart back to the British throne, and Presbyterianism to the altars of Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral.

At Dunbar, the Scottish field commander had bits and pieces of about 40 regiments under his command, cobbled into 10 brigades commanded by some of Scotland’s best and bravest military leaders. A Scottish army composed largely of Highlanders had been defeated by Cromwell a few months earlier at the Battle of Preston. Those who made up Leslie’s new army were Lowlanders, from Glasgow, Ayrshire, Edinburgh and Fife. At the start of the civil wars, a brigade usually consisted of two full-strength regiments. However, by 1650, casualties, sickness, and desertions had cut most Scottish regiments down to half or even a quarter of their original strength. As a result, most brigades were composed of the remainder of three, four or sometimes more regiments.

Leslie specialised in cavalry. An average Scottish cavalry regiment usually consisted of a colonel commanding eight troops of 60 men, plus four officers below the colonel in each troop: a captain, lieutenant, commissioned quartermaster and a cornet who carried the troop’s cornet standard into battle. The troops had no sergeants -- just two or three corporals, one or two trumpeters and a large complement of lowly privates. Scottish officers were almost invariably from the wealthy upper class. They were expected to provide their own clothing, which was rather dashing and very expensive during the civil war period. Scarlet and black were the most popular officers’ colours. Black was a very difficult colour to manufacture with the vegetable dyes available to tailors during the 1600s. The only officers dressed in black were usually very high in rank from filthy rich baronial families. Scarlet was the cheaper colour of choice for most professional soldiers regardless of rank, their country of origin or which side they were on, making for some rather confusing battles. Gold and silver laces were quite common in army garb, as were white lace collars and cuffs. Hair was generally worn at shoulder length, parted in the middle -- even by the strait-laced Presbyterian Covenanters. Blue woollen brimmed hats and heavy steel helmets imported from the Continent were in vogue with officers on both sides of the civil war.

The other main units of the Scottish armed forces in the 1600s consisted of regiments of pike, about 1,000 men in each, armed with Spanish-designed 13- to 16-foot-long poles with iron spearheads. They were trained for close combat against infantry and cavalry charges. The regiments of musket, each numbering 800 to 1,000 men, were the army’s real firepower. It’s not known how much artillery the Scots had at their disposal in 1650. Experts believe that General James Wemyss’ artillery regiment was probably able to deploy two or three dozen cannons of relatively short range, accounting for another 250 to 300 soldiers. The Scots also had regiments of "dragoones," about 400 mounted infantry soldiers lightly armed with short-barrelled muskets or carbines -- or weaponless except for lances and swords in times of troubled army finances. The highly mobile dragoons were an elite force, travelling on horseback but generally fighting on foot. As mounted infantry, they often fought in the vanguard of advancing armies, or held rearguard positions when the main army was in retreat.

Scottish regiments were generally called into service by press and levy. As in Sweden, the Scottish central government established military districts, nominated colonels, authorised the levying of troops, and established quotas by shire. To ensure co-ordination between national and local bodies, the Covenanters created committees of war or committees of the shire, which consisted of men nominated by, and responsible to, central government. These committees set the number of soldiers that each burgh or rural parish would raise to meet the quota for the shire. Councils functioned as recruiting agencies, while in more remote areas the clergy listed men eligible for service, selecting them with the assistance of the local landowner. Both encouraged men to join up with sermons, given with recruitment in mind. Central to the success of levies was the landowners, who could bring out kinsmen, tenantry, and servants. It was no wonder that they were chosen for colonelcies, while captains often came from the same class To make up quotas, press was used especially with militia, unlicensed beggars and petty criminals included.

In addition to regular units formed as mentioned, the Covenanters fielded clan forces. There is little record of their numbers, but it is safe to say that they formed company-sized units. The number reflected the men levied from a specific area or by a particular chieftain. Of the covenanting clans, none were reported present at Dunbar; clan chieftains raised their regiments by obliging their tenants -- through feudal duty or coercion if necessary -- to send their sons, brothers and husbands to follow the clan banner into battle.

The army was issued with ‘The Articles and Ordinances of War’; these specified the correct behaviour for soldiers. A unit could not be part of the army until it had sworn an oath on it and thus every soldier promised:

To be true and faithful in my service to the Kingdom of Scotland, according to the heads sworn by me in the Covenant: To honour and obey my Lord General, and all my Superior Officers and Commanders, and by all means to hinder their dishonour and hurt; To observe the Articles of War and camp discipline; never to leave the defence of this cause, nor flee from my colours so long as I can follow them: To be ready………to fight manfully to the uttermost, as I shall answer to GOD, and as GOD shall help me. – Articles and Ordinances of warre, for the present expedition of the Armie of Scotland (London, 1644)

The battle flag of the Covenanters bore the motto "For Christ's Crown and Covenant" and first appeared in 1639 in front of the Covenanter army commanded by General Alexander Leslie, first Earl of Leven, from Fife. He passed it to General David Leslie’s Army of the Covenant 11 years later.

Cromwell had returned from several months of drenching Ireland in blood to take on Leslie with a new army of 16,000 men, which crossed the Scottish border on July 22, 1650. He had eight regiments of cavalry and eight regiments of foot. One of the latter had just been formed in Coldstream near Newcastle -- the Coldstream Guards. English Scoutmaster General William Rowe reported to Parliament that Cromwell’s army was stocked with "very well baked bread," virtually unbreakable and almost everlasting. They marched into Scotland loaded down as well with cheese, horseshoes, nails, and portable "biscuit ovens" in order to bake even more unbreakable bread. There were promises of beans and oats to follow by sea from Kent. What the New Model Army lacked was tents -- only 100 small ones for officers were supplied -- and the soldiers in the ranks would pay a terrible price for this oversight.

As the English marched toward Edinburgh, Leslie unleashed a classic guerrilla war against them, perhaps the first army-sized guerrilla campaign in history. The terrain was Leslie’s personal backyard. He knew every inch of it and used that knowledge mercilessly against the frustrated New Model Army. The Scottish general’s troops -- particularly his dragoons -- ambushed the Roundheads in every mountain pass and glen. Then they melted away, leaving the English with nothing but wounds to treat and bodies to bury. English officer Charles Fleetwood wrote in despair in August that the New Model Army’s major problem was "the impossibility of our forcing the Scots to fight -- the passes being so many and so great that as soon as we go on the one side they go on the other."

At one point, Cromwell took a small party of his top commanders out for a first-hand look at the situation near Coltbridge. They ran into a hidden group of Scottish pickets, one of whom stood up and fired a quick musket round at Cromwell that just missed its mark. The startled Lord-General cupped his hands and shouted with bravado across the glen that he would have cashiered an English soldier for wasting a random shot from such a long distance away. The Scot shouted back that it was no random shot at all -- he had been at Marston Moor with Leslie and Cromwell and recognised his one opportunity to kill the Lord General right off the bat. Then he melted into the heather, to reload and fight again.

The English were running out of supplies. The Scots had stripped the countryside bare as they carefully retreated, avoiding any sort of major battle. The weather turned cold and wet, and disease began to take a heavy toll of Cromwell’s forces. More than 4,000 English soldiers were reported too ill to fight at one stage during the Edinburgh campaign. As the Roundheads closed in on the Scottish capital, they discovered that Leslie had shepherded his army into a masterfully designed position between heavily fortified Edinburgh and Leith on the coast, its narrow approaches bristling with hidden artillery and musketry. Cromwell’s own guns agonisingly wheeled all the way north from Newcastle briefly bombarded the city with a few pot-shots from Arthur’s Seat and his ships fired some desultory broadsides from the Firth of Forth, unmolested thanks to Scotland’s traditional failure to assemble any kind of navy. But the New Model Army was unable to breech Leslie’s Edinburgh defences.

In late August, the badly weakened English retreated east to Musselburgh on the coast, shipping out sick and wounded soldiers from its port by the hundreds. Leslie’s brigades took up the chase, paralleling the English march and harrying the Roundheads with incessant guerrilla attacks as both armies headed Southeast. Cromwell graphically described the situation in one of his dispatches: "We lay still all the said day, which proved to be so sore a day and night of rain as I have seldom seen . . .In the morning, the ground being very wet, we resolved to draw back to our quarters at Musselburgh, there to refresh and revictual. The enemy, when we drew off, fell upon our rear . . . We came to Musselburgh that night, so tired and wearied for want of sleep, and so dirty by reason of the wetness of the weather, that we expected the enemy would make an infall upon us -- which accordingly they did, between three and four o’clock in the morning." One disheartened English officer writing home described Cromwell’s forces at Musselburgh as "a poor, shattered, hungry, discouraged army."

The Scots pushed the 11,000 remaining English troops into a narrow strip of coastal land near the town of Dunbar and boxed them in. Leslie marched his main regiments to the top of Doon Hill escarpment, blocking the route south with a high ground position that Cromwell instantly recognised as impregnable. The stage was set for what Oliver Cromwell himself later regarded as his greatest military victory -- greater even than Naseby or Marston Moor. The committee of Covenanter ministers accompanying the Scottish army was poised to instruct David Leslie in the art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The morning of Sunday, September 1, 1650 was wet, cold and miserable -- a typical late summer’s day on Scotland’s Southeast coast. The English commander’s scouts had reported the road to the south and safety at Berwick effectively blocked. It was time to stand and fight, against impossible odds. But how? Cromwell could see the threatening glint of Scottish pikes and a sea of regimental pennants fluttering on the summit of Doon Hill a mile and a half away. He listened to the mutters of men and the rumble of moving artillery pieces drifting down the escarpment from a massive Scottish army itching for a fight. At this point, Cromwell’s choices amounted to charging uphill against a much superior Scottish army or staying put, to wither and die.

The Lord-General was holed up in Broxmouth House, a structure owned by the Earl of Roxborough, where a stream called the Broxburn slashes into the sea through a steeply sloped and heavily wooded glen. From Broxmouth the following day, he penned a urgent dispatch to Sir Arthur Haselrigge, his commander in Newcastle, pleading for reinforcements as soon as possible and urging him to keep the army’s predicament at Dunbar a secret from the parliamentarians back in London. "The enemy hath blocked up our way to Berwick at the pass through which we cannot get without almost a miracle," Cromwell wrote. "Our lying here daily consumeth the men, who fall sick beyond imagination."

On Monday afternoon, Cromwell summoned his regimental commanders and staff officers to a desperate strategy session at Broxmouth House. The English had only one thing going for them. If Leslie wished to attack, he could only do so by coming down the Doon escarpment -- Cromwell’s men were out of range for Leslie’s artillery. As the Roundheads desperately groped for solutions to a frightening military predicament, the Scots themselves provided the answer. Instead of waiting atop Doon Hill for the English to collapse from disease and starvation, Leslie’s army began moving slowly down the dominating slope at four o’clock in the afternoon to the cornfields below on the opposite side of the Broxburn from the Cromwell encampment. As Cromwell watched in disbelief and delight, the Scots cheerily settled into a night camp amid the rows of corn to get ready for the final victorious battle they believed would follow the next day. The Scots doused their matches, stacked their weapons, and unsaddled their horses. Many of their officers left to spend the night in the comfort of Dunbar-area farmhouses miles behind the lines -- all the better to fight the English after a decent night’s sleep and a hearty farm breakfast.

It appears that General Leslie’s tried and true guerrilla strategy had been summarily overruled earlier in the day by the impatient Covenanter ministers’ committee from Edinburgh. The men of the cloth accompanied the Scottish commander to the top of Doon Hill, only to bury their heads in the religious sand. In mid-August, the Covenanters pressed Charles II to issue a public statement attacking his mother’s popery and his late father’s bad counsel. Charles refused and watered down his declaration considerably before making it public. The Covenanters went berserk and took their revenge by shooting themselves in the foot. They launched a purge of the Scottish army, starkly reminiscent of Josef Stalin’s ideological purges of the Soviet Union’s Red Army during the 1930s. More than 3,000 of General Leslie’s best professional soldiers including many of his officers were peremptorily dismissed from the army and sent home for such unforgivable sins as loose morals and swearing in public. One angry Scottish colonel said the Covenanters left Leslie with an army of "nothing but useless clerks and ministers’ sons, who have never seen a sword, much the less used one."

Leslie’s army had already taken the high ground when the English straggled onto the golf course below late on the last day of August. He went to the Covenanters for permission to attack the English on September 1, a Sunday, before Cromwell could get his forces organised into a workable defence. They recoiled in horror from the idea of spilling blood on the Sabbath -- even English blood. As he resignedly watched the English regiments set up their defences on Sunday morning, Leslie went over to Plan "B." He would stay atop Doon Hill and let the English army wither and die to the point of surrender or try to charge uphill against him. But at a morning meeting on Monday, Sept. 2, the Covenanters would have none of it. The preachers now saw themselves as military strategists far more brilliant than the man who had had used his favourite allies "Hunger and Disease" to bring the English army to its knees with a minimum of Scottish losses. God, they piously decided, was on the side of the Covenanters. They were in charge, and they ordered Leslie to lead his army down Doon Hill that afternoon to prepare for an all-out attack on Cromwell the following morning. After an hour of acrimonious debate, the exasperated general reluctantly obeyed, his tactical genius tied in knots of religious red tape.

With his back to the ocean, Cromwell now realised that his only chance of victory had miraculously come to pass. And he thanked the same God for his one shining chance at deliverance. He watched in amazement as the Scots formed their line at the bottom of Doon Hill into a giant fan-shaped arc, stretching from the coast to the Broxburn, presenting him with an irresistible target. The Scots settled in with a massive contingent of cavalry on their right wing, crowded down onto the beach to the point where there was little room for manoeuvrability in the event of an attack. Of course the Scots thought they were about to do the attacking, not the English. But Cromwell decided to take the offensive. He ordered an audacious pre-dawn attack across the steep defile of Broxburn brook, aimed at a lightly defended position between the infantry and the cavalry on the Scottish right. A nervous Cromwell spent the night riding from regiment to regiment by torchlight on a small Scottish pony, telling his troops to "remember our battlecry -- the Lord of Hosts! Put your trust in God, my boys -- and keep your powder dry!" He had little trouble encouraging his men to fight. The Scots had captured a Roundhead cavalry patrol near Glasgow a couple of weeks prior to Dunbar and had sent the tortured and mutilated bodies back to Cromwell as a warning. That savage gesture served only to infuriate the English rank and file and stiffened the ailing army’s resolve considerably.

Cavalry regiments and three more regiments of foot slipped quietly across the Broxburn in the moonlight, skirting the Scottish right wing. Screaming "The Lord of Hosts!" at the pitch of their lungs, the Roundheads stormed into the Scottish camp, catching Leslie’s men sound asleep and completely unprepared. But the Scots recovered quickly, rising to defend the position against the English cavalry with their long Spanish pikes, muskets and baskethilt swords. In the centre of the line, ferocious hand-to-hand combat erupted between Scottish and English infantrymen and the tide began to turn in favour of the defenders as dawn broke. Cromwell took a look at the battlefield, and threw all of his reserves into the fight at precisely the right time in exactly the right place. The Ironsides -- never defeated in battle -- hit the exhausted Scots in an opening to the left of the infantry fighting and their line collapsed. The English cavalry regrouped and spilled through the gap. The battle had been lost by Leslie’s men in an instant. Cromwell himself marvelled at the work of his cavalry, saying, "they flew about like furies doing wondrous execution." An English officer put it a little more succinctly: "The Scots were driven out like turkeys."

The English victory was so complete that Cromwell broke into uncontrollable laughter amid the agonised screams of the wounded from both sides and the shattering silence of the bodies scattered two and three deep in places across the Dunbar battlefield. It was what the clerics subsequently called a "religious manifestation," a fairly common occurrence among deeply religious men of all faiths caught in battle during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. One Puritan preacher described Cromwell as "drunken of the spirit and filled with holy laughter" at Dunbar. An observer named Aubrey wrote in his book Miscellanies a few years after the Restoration that Cromwell "was carried on with a divine impulse. He did laugh so excessively as if he had been drunk. The same fit of laughter seized him just before the Battle of Naseby. ‘Tis a question undecided whether Oliver was more of the enthusiast, or the hypocrite."

The battle was no laughing matter for Scotland. With 3,000 soldiers killed, it turned into the worst rout ever endured by Scottish soldiers, who threw down their arms and fled by the thousands into the countryside. They were chased down, killed or captured by Cromwell’s cavalry as far as eight miles behind the original Scottish line. In Scottish history, the defeat became known sarcastically as "the Race of Dunbar." The English booty included Leslie’s entire baggage train, all of the Scottish artillery, 15,000 stands of arms and 200 regimental pennants. When news of the victory reached London, ecstatic members of the Rump Parliament resolved that a Dunbar medal should be struck for both officers and men. It was the first such military medal ever issued in Britain. There was no other until the Battle of Waterloo, a century and a half later.

In addition to the 3,000 Scots killed at Dunbar, another 10,000 were taken prisoner. Some English historians say Oliver Cromwell lost only 40 men killed and wounded. But that has to be taken with a grain of salt, given the intensity of the first hour of fighting. After the battle ended, Cromwell simply could not handle 10,000 prisoners. About 5,000 Scots described in an English document as "those wounded and those fatigued by flight" were released almost immediately on parole. But Cromwell ordered 5,100 Scottish soldiers marched south from Dunbar into captivity in England as quickly as possible, fearing the Scots might organise a counter-attack aimed at freeing and re-arming the prisoners. The English also had big plans for the prisoners they kept. A document from the English Calendar of State Papers issued during the period spells out the disposition of "Scotch rebel prisoners." Initially, the plan was to "execute all ministers and officers." That was subsequently changed to execution of one in 10 "of the common sort . . .one forced to confession . . .the rest sent to the plantations." There is no evidence of arbitrary executions. Instead, the Scots were all to be enslaved, sold and deported to Ireland or across the Atlantic for indentured servitude in the New World colonies. Fighting men from the losing side had suddenly become beasts of burden, a marketable commodity on a grand scale. But first came what could well be called the Durham Death March, a disgusting stain on English military and social history generally glossed over by British historians then and now.

Instead of counter-attacking, General David Leslie prudently fled with the skeleton of his once-mighty army to easily defended Stirling, the gateway to the Highlands. He left Edinburgh undefended and open to a triumphant Oliver Cromwell. The victorious New Model Army took possession of the city on Sept. 7, 1650, four days after Dunbar, but the Scottish garrison in Edinburgh Castle above the city held out until December. A much different fate awaited the 5,100 Scottish prisoners, who began a brutal eight-day march of 118 miles south to the English cathedral city of Durham. In the hours that followed the battle, Cromwell put his Newcastle commander Sir Arthur Haselrigge, Member of Parliament for Leicester, in charge of the prisoners. The march began at the crack of dawn on September 4th, and the prisoners finally arrived in Berwick, 28 miles to the south, well after dark that night. Scots escaped in droves along the road to Berwick and their English captors offered those recaptured no quarter, killing dozens o the unarmed escapees.

The English foot soldiers and cavalrymen escorting the prisoners had little food, eating mainly Scottish supplies captured from Leslie’s baggage train. There was virtually nothing to feed the Scots. Civilians along the route occasionally risked English vengeance and tossed them bread or whatever else could be spared, which wasn’t much after a summer of fighting in the area. The prisoners quenched their thirst from puddles of rainwater and fetid ditches. They began dying -- first from wounds, then from sickness, and later starvation. It turned into a death march, a forerunner of the Bataan death march endured by American prisoners captured by the Japanese after the fall of Corregidor in the Second World War.

Three days after the forced march to Berwick, the bedraggled and drenched Scots shuffled into Morpeth, where they were quartered in a farmer’s large walled cabbage field. Many had gone without food for several days, thanks to a Scottish soldierly habit of fasting for a day or two before a major battle to sharpen the reflexes. At Morpeth, "they ate up raw cabbages, leaves and roots," Haselrigge wrote in a letter to Parliament. "So many, as the very seed and labour at four-pence a day was valued at nine pounds. They poisoned their bodies. As they were coming from thence to Newcastle, some died by the wayside." By the dozens, then the hundreds as uncontrolled dysentery and typhoid fever swept through the Scottish ranks.

Newcastle, Haselrigge had them put into "the greatest church in town" -- St. Nicholas’ Church -- for the night. More prisoners died among the pews, and 500 others were unable to continue the march the following morning. The last agonising stretch took those who could still walk from Newcastle down to Durham, leaving a trail of dying men and corpses stiffening in the early fall frost along the side of the road. Approximately 1,500 prisoners were lost during the march. Some escaped, but most died of disease and wounds or were killed by their captors while attempting to flee home to Scotland.

Late in the afternoon of September 11, about 3,000 surviving Scots staggered into Durham Cathedral, a magnificent Norman structure on the site of an abbey originally built by monks more than 1,000 years ago, in 997. Built by Catholics and taken over by Anglicans during the era of Henry VIII, the cathedral fell on hard times a century later because of religious ferment between Puritans and Presbyterians on both sides of the border. Even before the civil wars, the region was regularly raided by the quarrelsome border clans. A Scottish army occupied the city in 1640 and held it for two years. The Scots confiscated money from the church to feed their troops. When the gold and silver coins were slow in coming, the Scots broke into the cathedral, smashing its priceless font and cathedral organ to pieces as a warning. Ten years later, when the defeated Scots of Leslie’s army were herded into the cathedral, they were given no fuel and little food. "I wrote to the mayor (of Durham) and desired him to take care that they wanted for nothing that was fit for prisoners," Haselrigge later insisted. "I also sent them a daily supply of bread from Newcastle . . . but their bodies being infected, the flux (dysentery) increased." Haselrigge proudly told his fellow members of parliament back in London that his cathedral prisoners were provided with "pottage made with oatmeal, beef and cabbage -- a full quart at a meal for every prisoner." He also told how his officers set up a hospital for the sick and wounded in the adjoining Bishop’s Castle, where patients were stuffed with "very good mutton broth, and sometimes veal broth, and beef and mutton boiled together. I confidently say that there was never the like of such care taken for any such number of prisoners in England."

That may have been what Haselrigge ensconced in Newcastle thought was happening, but his rank-and-file English guards in Durham were getting rich quick by getting away with murder. Tons of supplies coming in from Newcastle and "60 towns and places" in the Durham area were being stolen by the cathedral guards. Some of the food was sold to the prisoners for whatever money or personal jewellery they had managed to retain. Most of the prisoners’ rations went at cut-rate prices to merchants and grocers in the area. There is general agreement among British historians that Haselrigge did his best for the prisoners, and had no real idea of what was actually going on. The harsh reality is that very little of the food ever found its way into Scottish stomachs. "Notwithstanding all of this, many of them died -- and few of any other disease than the flux," a perplexed Haselrigge wrote. "Some were killed by themselves, for they were exceedingly cruel one towards the other. If any man was perceived to have any money, it was two to one he was killed before morning and robbed. If any had good clothes that (a prisoner) wanted, he would strangle the other and put on his clothes. They were so unruly, sluttish and nasty that it is not to be believed. They acted like beasts rather than men." No wonder. The prisoners were dying at an average rate of 30 a day in the cathedral. That rate probably hit 100 or more daily by the middle of October, as starvation and murder set in and the dysentery infection rate peaked.

The English commandant also insisted from Newcastle that his prisoners were getting an ample supply of coal to warm them as winter drew closer -- at least that’s what the men in charge of the cathedral were telling him. "They had coals daily brought to them, as many as made about 100 fires both night and day. And straw to lie on." But it appears the coal, like the food, was ending up everywhere except inside Durham Cathedral. Simply to stay alive, the Scots burned every sliver of wood in the church -- the pews, the altar, anything that would keep them warm, regardless of religious significance. Strangely, the only combustible object that survived was Prior Castel’s Clock, installed in the cathedral in the early 1500s under the great Te Deum Window. It was made primarily of wood, and running perfectly the following spring when most of the surviving Scots were shipped out to the New World as indentured slaves. The one-handed clock may have been left intact because of the decorative Scotch Thistle carved into the top of its wooden casing. It is running to this day in Durham Cathedral, its face divided into 48 segments to measure the day in quarters of an hour rather than the much more familiar 60-minute format.

The Scots also savaged the cathedral tombs of one of England’s most prominent families -- the Nevilles, who had defeated King David II and his Highlanders at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. The Nevilles became the Lords of Raby in the early 13th century, and remained one of the most influential families in England throughout the Middle Ages. The plundered and wrecked tombs were those of Ralph, fourth Baron Neville, who died in 1367, and Alice, his wife; John, fifth Baron Neville who died in 1388, and his wife Matilda. Theirs were the first lay burials allowed in the cathedral. The desperate Scots were probably searching for jewels buried with the Nevilles that could be traded for supplies with their English captors. The Nevilles’ tombs were ripped apart, their bones scattered or burned.

By the end of October 1650, approximately 1,600 Scots had died horrible deaths in Durham’s much-revered House of God. Only 1,400 of the 5,100 men who started the march from Dunbar in September were still alive less than two months later, when England’s traders in human flesh came for them. Nine hundred of those survivors went to the New World, mainly Virginia, Massachusetts and Barbados colony in the Caribbean. Another 500 were indentured the following spring to Marshall Turenne for service in the French army, and were still fighting seven years later against the Spanish, side by side with a contingent of English soldiers sent over by Cromwell.

The shocking reality is that far more Scots died as English prisoners than were killed at Dunbar. In Durham, disposal of the bodies had become a major problem. The mystery of what became of them was not solved until almost three centuries later, in 1946, when workers installed a central heating system in the cathedral’s music school. They came upon a mass grave while digging a trench for heating pipes on the north side of the cathedral. That grave went in a straight line from the cathedral’s North Door under a line of trees and then under the music school. The bodies had been buried without coffins or Christian services. The corpses had been tossed into the trench, one on top of the other, like so much garbage.

To this very day, there is no memorial of any kind to these unknown Scottish soldiers. They rest in anonymity in what they would have regarded as foreign soil, far from their homes and the graves of their loved ones.

Article By

Dennis Bell (July 20, 1998)
3018 Vega Court
Burnaby, B.C.
Canada V3J 1B3

Some minor editing by Rab Taylor

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